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In an issue of The Angling Report a long while ago I read that Japan did not have much to offer the traveling angler. I took that as something of a personal challenge, and, having checked the country out for myself, I beg to differ. My recent trip to Japan was primarily a sightseeing trip with some fishing thrown in, but fishing was a big enough part of my motivation that I would not have gone without the promise of fishing. So, what did I find? Not enough to make anyone cancel his trips to Christmas Island or Kola Peninsula, maybe, but if you find yourself going to Japan, there is indeed plenty of fishing there that is worth your while.
On my recent trip, I spent a couple of days in Tokyo just looking around, and then arranged a half day of fishing on Tokyo Bay with Captain Kei Okamoto, who is reputedly the top sea bass guide on the bay. I could easily be convinced of that. Given the difficulty of traveling in and around Tokyo, I paid extra for the captain to pick me up at the hotel at 4 AM. The launch site at a remote marina in Yokohama, about 45 minutes from downtown, makes this pickup an absolute necessity, and, considering that the taxi fare from the nearer Haneda Airport is about $90 one way, the hotel pickup is a bargain.
Perfect English, new open-bay boat, complete knowledge of the water: Captain Kei is the total package. The sea bass I caught on this trip rather resemble our domestic largemouth bass, just a little longer and slimmer. My wife was tossing a small wobble plug with her spinning rod, and I was tossing the Tokyo Bay special floating-minnow flies and Clousers. She out-caught me ten to one, to her great delight. It was good sport bouncing the floating flies off the shady side of ships in the harbor. I just did not have many takers. Had we both been throwing spinning lures it could easily have been a 40-fish day, all of them weighing between one and five pounds. Captain Kei said that the sea bass were usually more active with the flies, and I don’t doubt it, just not that day. It was a good fishing experience in a unique environment. He drove us back to the hotel at noon.
The next day we asked our trip facilitator, Ebi, to drive us from our downtown hotel to Haneda Airport. We paid a little extra for this, but I thought it was worth it to eliminate the risk of missing our flight. You’d have to travel around Tokyo a bit to understand the need for the escort. Our destination was the city of Wakkanai on the very north end of the north island of Hokkaido. This area is the very antithesis of Tokyo. It is wild, mostly uninhabited country with a few fishing villages and dairy farms. There are rolling hills and flat land, all very green. The Sarufutsu River winds through a broad plain here covered with cane-like vegetation and reeds. This river is the premier river for sea-run taimen in Japan, and June is the premier month to find them there.
The weather was typical for the area, I was told—foggy and wet. The locals told me that is perfect fishing weather. Our airline schedule allowed a half day of fishing on our arrival day, a full day fishing the next, and a half day fishing on the last day before the flight back to Tokyo. The road network makes many areas easily accessible, and that was true of our chosen fishing destination. I was told that we should expect a lot of fishermen, but, in fact, there were only a dozen or so congregated near the river mouth. I never did feel crowded. They were mostly using long, two-handed rods with shooting heads, stripping baskets, and aggressive retrieves. I felt like something of a heretic with my spinning gear, but I didn’t see any of these fellows landing a fish.
These sea-run taimen are rather like steelhead or Atlantic salmon in that a single catch is considered a good day. I have caught more and larger taimen on Sakhalin Island’s Poronay River a couple of hundred miles north, but that river is far less accessible. The sea-run taimen on Hokkaido are not considered fish-eaters, unlike the Mongolian taimen, so I did not expect to see a lot of surface action. However, just after the tide change, numerous taimen, with their broad red tails, began to crash minnows up and down the bank right at my feet. The guides use wobblers and spoons with small single hooks in order to reduce damage to the fish, and this seems admirable until you miss a few solid strikes, which I did. I had a fair chance of bringing in several each day, but, as we fishermen know, it just doesn’t work out like that. I can see some opportunity for success with a single-handed fly rod when they are crashing the minnows. My Tokyo Bay guide, Captain Kei, had just been there and caught four in three days with a single-handed fly rod. Yes, I did finally bring a taimen to the net on a red and gold spoon. It weighed about 15 pounds, and I was supremely proud of it. This fish spent most of his life in the Sea of Okhotsk and came up the Sarufutsu just in time to meet me there. One of the significant features of the area is a large lake called Poro Pond, and its outlet to the river sees a pretty dramatic tidal flow. That is where I had my best luck.
My wife declined to brave the rain and shoreline mud, but most would consider the fishing conditions and access fairly easy. On the bright side, my wife might have out-caught me again if she had decided to fish.
We stayed at the Hotel Sarufutsu, only a few minutes from the river, where they serve locally caught scallops at every meal—a very good idea. Our guide, Iwao Shimoyama (Shimo), was more than professional: he really cared about our overall good experience. Given the limited time I had available and my results and observations, I came away convinced that spinning gear and wobblers are best, both on Tokyo Bay and on the Sarufutsu, if you really want to catch fish. On the other hand, both fisheries are doable with the long rod. My advice to anyone who wants to replicate my experience is to bring this up with Morohito Ebisudani (Ebi) of Trout and King (www.troutandking.com), who handled my fishing trips. Everything he arranged in Tokyo and at Wakkanai worked seamlessly.
Very few Westerners have fished for sea-run taimen on Hokkaido, Sakhalin Island, or on Russia’s eastern coast.
Hokkaido is by far the easiest to reach, and it merits your fishing time if you are going that way. I must add that I found the Japanese there to be courteous and polite and genuinely glad we were there. A good many of them are quite mad fishermen. The cost was about $580 per day for the two of us, and the Hotel Sarufutsu cost was about $130 including breakfast and dinner. The air tickets from Haneda Airport to Wakkanai were about $290 each. I was very satisfied with the cost and the experience.—Elbert Bivens.
Don Causey Note. Near press time, I dropped Bivens a note, asking him for some more details on the taimen fishing around Sakhalin Island. In his reply, Bivens pointed out that he has already filed two reports on this fishing. Indeed, he has. They are Reports No. 2217 and 4487, and they are available free to Online Extra subscribers in our Trip Planning Database. Clearly, if you have been looking for a fishing frontier, Sakhalin Island may be everything you ever dreamed of. In my note, I also asked Bivens to explain what really inspired him to go fishing in Japan. It had to be more than an attempt to prove us wrong here at The Angling Report. Here is what he had to say: “I met a nice group of Japanese fishermen from Osaka on Christmas Island (Ikari House) last November. They told me quite a bit about fishing in Japan, and that is what pushed me over the edge. My wife and I already had Japan vaguely in focus as a tourist destination, and the promise of some adventuresome fishing was what it took to get us moving. It is probably worth mentioning that the weather in Hokkaido was quite cool: high 40s to low 50s. Also, I should note that Sakhalin Island is a real wilderness experience. Hokkaido is considerably more civilized, although the size of the fish is maybe down a few notches. If I were going back, I would skip Tokyo and fly directly to Haneda Airport and from there to Wakkanai, and plan on five or six days. Apart from the air tickets from the U.S. to Japan, the cost is quite reasonable. The outfitter priced the guiding rather oddly at 29,000 yen ($290) each per day—not sure why an on-foot guide should charge double for two, but that was what I agreed to and have no regrets, even if my wife only fished a little. I would probably work something a little differently if I went back. I don’t consider this a negative.”